Chris Hillman – a mandolin man for good music and good land use

Former Byrds bass player Chris Hillman talks with Greenbelt Alliance about bluegrass, his bands, and Bluegrass for the Greenbelt.

With a career that has spanned 40 years and at least three different music styles, Chris Hillman knows how to put on a good show.

A renowned mandolin and guitar player, Hillman got his start in the L.A. bluegrass and folk scene in the early ‘60s.  Soon recognized for his musical ability, Hillman was picked up by the band the Golden State Boys, which later became The Hillmen.  Jim Dickson, soon-to-be manager of a rag-tag folk group called the Byrds, asked Hillman to audition for the bass player.  Hillman had to quickly learn the electric bass, which he did by listening to Paul McCartney on Beatles albums.  Dickson gave him the spot, and Hillman’s career took off.

In time, the Byrds steered toward country rock, and then Hillman moved off in that direction himself both as a solo artist and a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. In the ‘80s, Hillman became a full-fledged country star as the leader of the award-winning Desert Rose Band.  This fall, Hillman and his former Desert Rose Band-mate Herb Pedersen are releasing a new album with Rounder Records, “Chris & Herb at Edwards Barn.”

Greenbelt Alliance caught up with Hillman in advance of Bluegrass for the Greenbelt, Greenbelt Alliance’s annual benefit concert, which Hillman and Pedersen will headline on June 5.

Greenbelt Alliance: Let’s start with a simple question: Why bluegrass music?

Chris Hillman: That’s a good question.  My sister went off to college at the University of Colorado in the late 1950s when I was in high school, and she brought back albums by the New Lost City Ramblers – old mountain music – and I started to listen to it, and the music just touched a nerve. I kept looking for more music like that, and found bluegrass.

GA: How did you learn to play bluegrass? Was there a big bluegrass scene where you grew up?

CH: Growing up in rural southern California, it was hard to find someone to teach me the mandolin, but I found a guy, Scott Hambly, a real mandolin player, who was based out of Berkeley.  I would take the train up to Berkeley from San Diego to take lessons.

GA: You’ve played many different kinds of music over your career from bluegrass to folk with the Byrds to more country rock with the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band.  Do you consider yourself a bluegrass musician?

CH: Something hit a nerve with me for bluegrass when I was young, but I also loved the Everly Brothers, and they had more of a country sound. They sang in these tight harmonies, and Herb and I try to capture that sound and spirit.  We really pride ourselves on our singing.

No, I don’t consider myself a bluegrass player.  Herb and I, we’re really an acoustic country band.  We play everything from country band gothic to gospel to Bluegrass to Byrds songs to folk rock to new songs.  We like the intensity of that kind of folky, country sound, but we like to be versatile.

GA: Tell me about your experience with the Byrds.  Moving to folk at that point in your career must have been a big shift from bluegrass.

CH: Sure, we played folk music, but we had no musical blueprint.  We were a garage band, and our different styles melted into a great thing.

What really launched us was the Bob Dylan song “Tambourine Man,” which is folk rock, and then after one and a half years of playing folk rock and rock-and-roll, we took a big right turn, not politically, but musically.  We recorded an album in Nashville and played at the Grand Ole Opry, and started to mix up the rock with country.

GA: You left the Byrds after four years to play in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and to do solo work in the 1970s, but in the 1980s you returned to the country charts leading the Desert Rose Band.  How did the band form?

CH: The Desert Rose Band was by far an accident.  I had no idea that we’d get a record deal.  All these songs I had written had become country hits, but I was in my 40s — I didn’t think I would actually lead a band.  That just wasn’t the plan.

The Desert Rose Band was also the most successful group that I was in.  I played with them for eight years from 1986-1994, far longer than any other band. Two years ago we did four sold-out reunion shows, and we’ll do another at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma on May 29, and a few more shows in August.  We’re not getting back together, but we’re playing for the love of the music.

GA: How did you start to work with Herb Pedersen?

CH: Herb and I have known each other since we were 18. Herb made a career working in studio sessions.  He is a great background singer—he has sung with Kenny Rogers, EmmyLou Harris, and he makes everyone sound good. He makes me sound good!

We started working together after Desert Rose Band, when I was doing a lot of solo work, playing concerts when I wanted, but the mandolin and the guitar go so well together, we started playing shows and made some records. We’re two cranky old men, but we have a great time, and the music speaks for itself.

GA:  Bluegrass for the Greenbelt is a great music festival, but it’s also a fundraiser for Greenbelt Alliance.  Does the Greenbelt Alliance mission to protect open space and create vibrant urban places resonate with you?

CH: I am a third-generation Californian.  My great-grandfather traveled here by train, wagon, and horseback.  My mother grew up in L.A. before the freeways and traffic had taken over. I grew up in San Diego County in Rancho Santa Fe when I could still ride my horse 5 to10 miles to the beach from my house. I have watched my state become a nightmare of housing developments with no trees.

The land needs to be managed.  We are stewards of the land and I am an ardent supporter of smart land use.  In Ventura, we have worked to stop unbelievably stupid housing developments for which the developer will promise you anything – parks, schools – to build. This state is way overbuilt. People build lots in the canyons; nothing is sacred here.

The smartest thing the Bay Area ever did was build BART so people could get around without driving everywhere.

GA: What’s one message you want to leave with Greenbelt Alliance supporters and fans of Bluegrass for the Greenbelt?

CH:  Come to the festival and leave your troubles behind. My job is to make you feel better, to entertain you, to create a realm of dignity in which to watch our show.

~Sara Barz

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